Having a computer means everything's connected

by Alan Zisman (c) 1999. First published in Vancouver Computes, August 1999

With computers in about half the homes, there?s been some speculation about what will it take to convince the other half to buy in.

Part of the hesitation has been price?a $2,000 computer system is one of the more expensive home purchases. You can buy a pretty skookum TV + VCR for that kind of money, for example. As computer prices drop, though, that argument becomes weaker.

But many would-be users have a fear of the complexity of today?s computers. And to a large extent their fears are justified. Even presumably simple systems like Apple?s iMac exist in a state of delicate balance between the hardware and the software. There are just too many complex interactions that can go wrong.

Here are a couple of problems that I?ve had to unravel recently.

  • I upgraded my PC system not too long ago, moving from a 166 MHz Pentium to a 400 MHz Pentium-II. I connected it to my printer, scanner, and so forth, and started installing my applications and the software drivers to make it work with all those hardware add-ins.

Suddenly, it stopped working?more than half the time, it wouldn?t boot up properly, claiming to be unable to find files needed by Windows 98?even though the files were right where they were supposed to be. So I reformatted the drive, reinstalled Windows 98, and started the process of loading everything back again.

And the problem re-occurred. Sounds like hardware, right? Since the computer was only a few days old, I took it back to the vendor. We swapped in a new hard drive, and I again started reinstalling everything. And the problem re-occurred. So we swapped the RAM. Twice. With no luck. And then we tried a new power supply. And a new motherboard. At that point, it was essentially a different computer, but the problem kept occurring.

Eventually, by coincidence, I heard of someone else with the same problem.

It turns out that the drivers that came with my scanner didn?t work right with processors running faster than 300 MHz. Newer drivers were available at the manufacturer?s Web site which corrected the problem.

Moral #1?everything?s connected to everything else. Who would have thought that a problem with the scanner drivers could cause the system to be unable to boot?

Moral #2?periodically check the Web sites for all your hardware add-ons. New drivers for video cards, mouse, printers, and all can help with even seemingly unrelated problems.

(And by the way, Vancouver?s Nantron Computers earns my gratitude for going far beyond the call of duty in helping me work through a problem that turned out to have nothing to do with the hardware they sold me).

  • After replacing Microsoft Internet Explorer 4 with the newer Internet Explorer 5, suddenly I started to have a problem with my old reliable Eudora Pro e-mail program. Messages designed to appear as a Web page?with fancy fonts and effects or embedded graphics were nearly unreadable, appearing as raw HTML code.

I didn?t think it was a conspiracy by Microsoft to get everyone to use their Outlook Express mail program, but I knew that Eudora used Internet Explorer to enable it to view HTML-formatted messages. I could turn off the option to do that in Eudora, which let those messages appear as boring but legible plain text messages, rather than a hard-to-read  gibberish of HTML commands.

Again, the problem turned out to be a more complex interaction than it appeared at first. The problem wasn?t just an interaction between Internet Explorer 5 and Eudora?a third program, GetRight, a utility to help in downloading files over the Internet, was involved. Only when it?s installed along with Eudora and Internet Explorer 5, does the problem I was having occur.

And according to a technical support report on Eudora?s Web site, even removing GetRight doesn?t help?its Uninstall option leaves behind a couple of commands in Windows? cryptic Registry, that have to be manually deleted, in order to get things working right again. Once that?s done, Eudora can again make use of Internet Explorer 5 to display HTML-formatted messages the way they?re supposed to be seen.

I was pointed in the direction of help after posting a message in the comp.mail.eudora.ms-windows Usenet group. There are literally thousands of Usenet ?newsgroups?. And while lots of them are pretty wacky, many are focused on pretty specific computer hardware and software related issues.

Moral #3?when you have a problem, you?re probably not the only one. Hunt around the Web sites of your software manufacturers, or post your problem in the appropriate Usenet groups.

Moral #4?see Moral #1. Once again, the problem turned out to involve something other than where the symptoms were. Sort of like having your toilet back up when you put a piece of toast in the toaster.

In my house, the toaster doesn?t really affect the toilet. But my computer?s a more complex system.

The Last Moral ?don?t expect computers to offer home appliance ease of use anytime soon.

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Alan Zisman is a Vancouver educator, writer, and computer specialist. He can be reached at E-mail Alan